By Misty Bott
I love setting goals. Early in the morning. And chatting with my (non-morning-people) family members about my goals for the day, the week, and the month — while also peppering them with questions about their own goals and what they want to accomplish in their own lives. You can literally hear my teenage boys grinding their teeth when I do this. I think their only goal is to NOT melt my face off every morning.
But whether or not you love setting goals, actually achieving them is the tricky part. To help improve your chances for success, we’ve created a two-part guide combining some of the recent breakthroughs researchers have discovered about reaching our goals and strengthening our willpower, along with a few practical and essential tips that have been scientifically proven to help make New Year’s resolutions a reality. Your “New year, new you” you will thank you!
Step 1: Set the Right Goals
You likely already understand the importance of crafting goals that are specific, measurable, and realistic. For example, deciding to hit the Peloton for 25 minutes a day is specific, while “get in better shape” is vague, and “win the Tour de France” is–at least for most of us–unrealistic.
In general, this is not bad advice. According to authors Bettina Höchli, Adrian Brügger, and Claude Messner of the University of Bern in Switzerland, “Goal-setting theory shows across hundreds of studies that challenging, specific, and concrete goals are powerful motivators and boost success in goal pursuit…”
However, there is a growing body of evidence which suggests that loftier, less-specific goals are also worth tackling. According to Höchli, Brügger, and Messner, these goals “…represent and determine what people ultimately value and aspire to…” Because they’re value-based, they can be highly motivating and may actually help improve your odds for success.
In fact, value-based goals have been shown to work in a number of different studies. For example, a 2008 experiment revealed that fundraising callers who were taught how their fundraising helped those in need improved their job performance significantly compared to those who were not. They understood the value of what they were doing, which helped improve their performance. It makes sense: If you have a goal–even if it’s a big one, like improving your health–it’s easy to see how you’d be more willing to work to achieve it if it connects with something you deeply value.
The takeaway? Definitely include specific, smaller goals in your resolutions, but don’t be afraid to also tackle a big-picture item. In fact, combining some smaller goals as part of your larger goal can make real magic happen. For example, set a big-picture goal to be healthier if that is something you really value. Then add in specific smaller goals, like committing to walk for 20 minutes, 3 times a week, or swapping soda for tea twice a week.
Step 2: Build Bigger (Willpower) Muscle
Even if you have all the right goals in place, know that it’s likely impossible to achieve them without a little willpower. You may think willpower is something you’re either born with or will never have, but one theory begs to differ. It’s called the strength model of self-control, and its biggest champion is a psychologist named Roy Baumeister.
His research has shown that over time, exerting willpower can deplete our self-control. Skipping whipped cream on your Starbucks order or dragging yourself out of bed at 5:30 to hit steam yoga can wear down your willpower reserves and make you more likely to give in to temptation later.
Even more frustrating, these acts of willpower don’t have to be related. Meaning, skipping junk food doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to binge on bad foods later. Rather, wearing down your willpower reserves can set you up for other potentially unintended indulgences. Waking up early for steam yoga and choosing a protein shake over that tantalizing chocolate chip muffin at breakfast may make you more likely to waste time online at work later in the day.
Fortunately, there is some good news. Baumeister hypothesizes that–just like building your physical muscles–you can strengthen your willpower through a program of training. According to a paper published by Baumeister, Michel Audiffren, and Nathalie André, “…regular exertions of self-control can improve willpower strength and stamina, just as exercise training can strengthen muscles.”
One caveat, however—don’t overdo it in the quest to strengthen lagging willpower. In her book The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist, best-selling author, and Stanford lecturer, says, “…if you try to control or change too many things at once, you may exhaust yourself completely. This failure says nothing about your virtue–just about the nature of willpower itself.”
To summarize, it is possible to improve your willpower with practice. However, you shouldn’t try to change everything in your life all at once or you may end up depleting your willpower rather than strengthening it.
Step 3: Put It All to Work
How do you take the science behind willpower and goal setting and put it to practical use? Here are 3 science-backed practices that can help.
- Meditate: According to McGonigal, a growing body of research shows regular meditation can help people achieve goals like staying sober and losing weight. And you don’t have to be a certified meditation yogi to see a benefit. She recommends starting with a 5-minute meditation where you sit still with your hands in your lap, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. Repeat in your mind “inhale” and “exhale” to match your breathing, and after a few minutes let your mind go still and just focus on breathing. Even if your mind wanders, this practice can greatly help to increase your willpower and make you more likely to achieve your goals.
- Exercise: Research shows regular physical activity can improve self-control in virtually all aspects of our lives. In a study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, researchers found that individuals who started a regular workout program gained more self-control over the course of the trial than those who didn’t. They also reported feeling less stressed, were able to cut back on caffeine and alcohol, began eating healthier, improved their study habits, and more. So even if your resolutions don’t revolve around physical fitness, adding exercise to your daily routine can help you achieve other goals.
Focus on Your “Why”: When you are tempted to do something that could derail your resolutions, take a second to stop and think about why you set your goals in the first place. Then ask, is this indulgence worth it? We’re all tempted to give in to rewards, especially when we reach a goal (like stopping for a treat after hitting our weight-loss or fitness goals). However, McGonigal cautions to always think about the why before you actually give in.
“Remembering the 'why' works because it changes how you feel about the reward of self-indulgence,” she writes. “That so-called treat will start to look more like the threat to your goals that it is, and giving in won’t look so good.”